Magic Johnson’s shocking resignation Tuesday—which, as it happened, apparently surprised reporters and members of the organization alike—is only the latest twist in the strange saga of the Lakers’ season. What started in excitement is now ending in confusion. The team is headed for the lottery. LeBron James is showing signs of aging. And now the franchise is stumbling toward its most critical offseason of the decade with questions about who will be running the show. All of this begs the question: What does this mean for LeBron’s championship chances in Hollywood?
It can’t be understated how important this summer is for the Lakers. LeBron preached patience when the ink dried on his contract last July. That hardly lasted a full year, with James openly clamoring for better teammates a few months into the season, undoubtedly playing a role in trying to engineer a trade for Anthony Davis. Johnson was in charge of those negotiations, and he appeared prepared to offer the whole damn roster to acquire AD. It’s obvious that James wants a championship-caliber roster, and this summer could be L.A.’s chance to build such a team. Johnson was supposed to be the point person in those meetings, the larger-than-life figure who could close deals with superstars by flashing his megawatt smile, flaunting his on- and off-court success. Is James now meant to entrust his future to… Kobe Bryant’s former agent?
I can’t imagine James pictured this scenario when he signed a three-plus-one deal with the Lakers. Remember, he continuously signed one-year contracts in Cleveland to keep the pressure on the Cavs’ front office. It doesn’t seem plausible that James would suddenly stop caring about playing for titles. That makes whoever the Lakers hire to run the show this summer the organization’s most important decision since Bryant retired. Not only to gain the trust of James—who met with Magic the second free agency opened last July—but to ensure that James’s twilight won’t be wasted toiling in the lottery. (And the Lakers have to hire someone to run the show. Entering the offseason with a Pelinka-Jeanie Buss shotgun wedding atop the flow chart would be criminally negligent.)
I don’t think LeBron is going to do anything crazy like request a trade (though nothing about the Lakers would surprise me anymore.) But Jeanie Buss can’t afford to miss on her next hire. Los Angeles needs someone who not only can decide on Luke Walton’s future or lure superstars, but also someone who can provide a competent structure that the Lakers have lacked ever since Sports Illustrateddeclared the Dwight Howard era was going to be fun.
L.A. was already facing an uphill climb this summer, with top free agents seemingly preferring other destinations as opposed to joining forces with LeBron. With Magic gone, the chances of building a championship team around James seems even more complicated. Who will be the face of free agent pitches? What exactly is Rob Pelinka’s area of expertise?
The bottom line is this: LeBron James’s route to title contention in Los Angeles was already incredibly complicated. Johnson’s sudden departure only makes that path so much more difficult. Not only does the team lose a figure theoretically popular with players, his sudden resignation is another sign of incompetence for a front office that desperately needs to be on its best behavior this offseason.
With all that being said, Johnson’s departure undoubtedly hurts James’s title odds in Los Angeles. That’s not to say it’s impossible for James to win a championship with the Lakers. Maybe the guys who want to play with him won’t be affected by Magic’s decision. Maybe a new front office successfully pulls off a roster overhaul that’s more attractive to big-name talent. But it’s striking to compare the Lakers—rife with instability and infighting—to their cap-space-laden competitors, all of whom have their affairs in order ahead of the summer. Much more will assuredly follow in the wake of Johnson’s stunning exit. There is no doubt, however, that LeBron’s pursuit of his next ring hit another big bump in the road as Johnson decided to walk away.